BUFFALO, N.Y. — Fresh off a bitter 83-71 season-ending loss to West Virginia on Saturday, Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey could not help but smile when thinking about next year’s roster.
As he told the team in the locker room afterwards, a Dec. 31 game at Pittsburgh stands out. In that 78-77 overtime win it was Notre Dame’s underclassmen that led the way, keeping the struggling Irish afloat in a hostile environment.
“I said, ‘That really sticks in my mind,’” Brey said. “Those guys that will rotate up into key roles, they’ve all had a taste in big games. They have played in big games. I’m looking at the guys, those seven guys, they’ve all been part of some good stuff.”
Last October, Notre Dame was picked to finish seventh in the 15-team Atlantic Coast Conference. The Irish went on to finish tied for second in the regular season and come within a few minutes of beating Duke for a league title.
With what he returns, Brey’s squad won’t be sneaking up on the league again.
First-team All-ACC forward Bonzie Colson and All-ACC honorable mention point guard Matt Farrell will both be seniors and logical picks for team captain. The Irish also return guard Rex Pflueger and forward Martinas Geben, who both started for long stretches this season.
“Pick us ninth. Pick us ninth,” Brey said with a laugh. “But you look at what you’ve got coming back, and those two guys, they’re two of the 10 best players in the ACC. You feel like, let’s keep doing what we’re doing and get back in this thing and make a run at it again.”
Losing two of the winningest players in Notre Dame history in V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia won’t be easy. The two combined to go 7-3 in NCAA Tournament games and reach back-to-back Elite Eights.
The Colson-Farrell combination softens the blow, though.
Colson, who played the center spot for the Irish during the last month, is a potential national Player of the Year candidate. Farrell, among the most improved players in the ACC as a junior, again will have the keys to the high-powered offense.
“Your guy in the hole and your guy in the point, what do they say in baseball, be good down the middle?” Brey said. “We’re pretty good down the middle with those two guys coming back.”
The Irish also bring back sharpshooter Matt Ryan, who will be a junior. Point guard T.J. Gibbs, who came off the bench this season, will rise into a more prominent role as a sophomore. Incoming freshmen D.J. Harvey, a top-100 recruit, will have some type of role in his rookie season.
Reserve forward Austin Torres will be a fifth-year senior and might be a third team captain. Even big men John Mooney, a sophomore next year, and Elijah Burns, a junior, are poised to help the Irish next year despite sitting the bench this season.
“They’re coming,” Brey said. “They’ve got to find ways to get going.”
Ending the season with a frustrating loss only adds fuel to the fire for next season.
“We have to use it as motivation,” Farrell said. “Whatever we start doing in spring, our workouts, we’ve got to keep this in the back of our minds and use it as motivation and get better.”
“It’s extra motivation that we came up short, knowing that we had larger goals in mind,” Pflueger said. “That’s just the game, you never know what’s going to happen.”